Eat This Now

The 10 Best Dishes Our Critic Ate in 2019

Grilled oysters from Chula Seafood Uptown are finished with bourbon-chipotle butter.
Grilled oysters from Chula Seafood Uptown are finished with bourbon-chipotle butter. Jackie Mercandetti Photo
With December sliding away, a great year of eating is closing. This year, I was lucky to eat hundreds of meals (for work!) in the urban and rural reaches of the state, including at an Oak Flats campground, down on the Gila River Indian Reservation, and all over the Valley from El Mirage to Queen Creek. Out of the many plates I had, here are the 10 that still, as of today, haunt me the most.

Grilled Oysters

Chula Seafood Uptown
100 East Camelback Road, #172

Oysters have an alchemy unique in the world of eating. Cooked, that alchemy narrows. Even so, the delicate marine notes of cooked oysters slide into harmony in Chula Seafood Uptown’s version, grilled and placed over char-ticked Noble bread rounds. That bread is crisp. The cooked oysters still jiggle. The meaty-but-delicate bivalves get finished with a bourbon-chipotle butter carrying a milk-rich comfort and warming heat. It’s hard to feel anything but sunshine slurping Kyle Kent's oysters. It’s hard to imagine cooked oysters getting much better.

click to enlarge Syrian-style bread baked by fire at Shamy. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Syrian-style bread baked by fire at Shamy.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Za’atar and Haloumi Manakeesh

Shamy Market & Bakery
1110 West Southern Avenue, #8, Mesa

This hidden Mesa bakery, operated by the Alimams, a family of Syrian refugees, peals bready wonders from a gas oven from the back of a strip-mall room that is mostly market. They are pita and Middle Eastern pizza, and if you order right, they will include manakeesh: folder-thick, yeast-risen flatbreads with puffy rims. At Shamy Market & Bakery, you can order them round and flat, almost like pizza, or shaped in toasty canoes. Za’atar is finely rained on top. Haloumi is milky and saline. It's one of the Valley’s great unsung breads.

click to enlarge Hush Public House's ridiculously delicious Italian beef remix. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Hush Public House's ridiculously delicious Italian beef remix.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Oxtail “Italian Beef”

Hush Public House


14202 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale

Dom Ruggiero’s riff on the Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich at Hush Public House is so mind-blowing that it might vaporize your memory of the original. His spotlights oxtail braised in red wine until the melting texture of a great barbecued brisket. On the plate, it rises from a shallow pool of gravy, covering a slab of Noble brioche and itself covered by a florid blizzard of giardiniera. Smoked provolone oozes. Parsley flecks the jus. The flavor is so deep and rich and artfully balanced that it would be a first-ballot entrant if there were an oxtail dish hall of fame. 

click to enlarge Hiramasa ceviche from Vecina in Arcadia. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Hiramasa ceviche from Vecina in Arcadia.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Hiramasa Ceviche

Vecina
3433 North 56th Street

The dense, light-green sauce that powers James Fox and Eric Stone’s ceviche dish at Vecina is practically drinkable. They could serve it in a bowl as a soup. They could fill pools with this stuff and charge people large sums to swim. The sauce is based on Peru’s leche de tigre, a coconut-spiked sauce tailored to fresh raw fish. But they add thoughtful, out-of-the-box touches, like fish sauce and ginger, and these weave together imperceptibly but brilliantly. Bright with lime and pineapple, touched with jalapeno, sidekicked by snappy tostadas, this ceviche honors the first-rate Chula Seafood hiramasa heaped at center.

click to enlarge Pupusas from Seydi's in north Phoenix peak with loroco. - CHRIS MALLOY
Pupusas from Seydi's in north Phoenix peak with loroco.
Chris Malloy

Loroco Pupusa

Seydi’s Pupuseria & Grill
2625 East Greenway Parkway

Seydi Flores griddles many kinds of pupusas at her Salvadorian restaurant in north Phoenix called Seydi’s Pupuseria & Grill. The best one I’ve had features loroco, an edible flower that imparts, to its lusciously melted cheese within its griddled corn-dough pocket, a delicate fragrance similar to that of artichoke. This pupusa is soft, but not too soft, and shows garish smears of char on abrasive exterior. Jalapeno lends heat. You can taste the corn in the dough. Flores sources loroco from a Los Angeles market, and those pupusas come straight from her heart.

click to enlarge Look at the color on this skin! - CHRIS MALLOY
Look at the color on this skin!
Chris Malloy

Lechon Baboy

Hot Noodles Cold Sake (Pop-Up)
10600 East Crescent Moon Drive, Scottsdale

For one day in March, Brian Webb, until recently a fixture at Hot Noodles Cold Sake, doled out lechon baboy. For this Filipino specialty, which he learned to make from his wife’s family, where there is a line of lechon baboy specialists going back a few generations, he cooked a whole suckling pig on a spit over charcoal. The pork was deeply flavorful, in the way that meat from a lovingly whole-cooked animal can be. The pig was perfumed with lemongrass and garlic, and rich with skin, your first bite tearing open a rare portal to Lapu-Lapu City.

click to enlarge Al pastor tacos from La Bamba are mighty. - CHARLES BARTH
Al pastor tacos from La Bamba are mighty.
Charles Barth

Al Pastor Taco

La Bamba Mexican Grill Restaurant
12102 West Thunderbird Road, El Mirage

It takes a lot to be floored by tacos in a taco town. But that’s just what happened to me when I inhaled my first al pastor tacos from this nook in the far west Valley. Edson Garcia crafts my favorite version of al pastor in town at La Bamba Mexican Grill Restaurant. Using a pineapple vinegar, he ferments from the fruit’s curves and wedges, using fatty pork belly. Amber strips of pineapple ornament each taco. So do lashings of three different salsas. Limes and grilled onion pile on the tray beside the tortillas. Putting your hands to a newly griddled taco, nirvana feels close.

click to enlarge The chicken version of Old Town Taste's Chongqing-rooted special. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
The chicken version of Old Town Taste's Chongqing-rooted special.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Chongqing Fish

Old Town Taste
1845 East Broadway Road, Tempe

This strip mall Chinese restaurant has a Sichuan bent, and many of its best dishes dazzle with the high-flying interplay of Sichuan peppercorn and chile burn. The best dish at Old Town Taste that leans in this direction is the Chongqing-style platter listed on the menu as a house special. It comes in chicken or fish form. I prefer the fish, a small mountain of breaded whitefish alive with blistered string beans and char-splotched chiles. The sheath around each bite of chicken is thin and lacy. The fish is piping hot. There's a blast of salt and surge of pleasant numbness and fire, washing you away to happy places.

click to enlarge One version of Swanson's "key lime" pie getting finished tableside. - CHRIS MALLOY
One version of Swanson's "key lime" pie getting finished tableside.
Chris Malloy

Key Lime Pie

Kai Restaurant
5594 Wild Horse Pass Boulevard

After Kai broke for summer, Chef Ryan Swanson came back swinging. Within a few weeks, he developed and dropped a dessert for the ages: a key lime pie riff that spotlights what is arguably the signature plant of the desert: cactus. For the light green bulk and citrusy heartbeat of the “key lime” pie, Swanson calls on nopales. The fragrant, deeply earthy crust is built from Ramona Farms pinole. The pie also sees barrel cactus seeds, cholla buds, prickly pear in two unlikely forms, wild sumac, and desert willow. And here is a pie that you can’t taste anywhere else in the world: one that, in vegetal notes, restrained sweetness, and bright cutting beauty, calls to mind the Sonoran.

A mixed seafood platter from ShinBay. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
A mixed seafood platter from ShinBay.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Mixed Seafood Plate

ShinBay
3720 North Scottsdale Road, #201, Scottsdale

ShinBay’s mixed seafood plate is a seven-headed sea monster. It’s really many plates in one, a smattering of separate, colorful marine preparations gathered onto one dish that evokes, as you go, a more deeply piercing wonder. A cream-cheese-thick lobster reduction changes your angle on shrimp. A meaty Kumamoto oyster gets zapped with ponzu jelly. Yuzu kosho brings a recently fished alabaster Hokkaido scallop to high life. Even strips of jellyfish faint with soy conjure a salt-wind feeling of blue sea. Chef Shinji Kurita is a master. At his new 13-seat omakase, this is his most masterful dish. 
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy